An article by exercise physiologist, Jennifer Smallridge

Did you know that we spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping, or attempting to do so? The benefits of a good night’s sleep are well known, and yet it can feel elusive when we need it the most.  

Sleep is internally regulated by our body, meaning that it is prioritised and sought out just as much as eating, drinking and breathing. While we are busy catching Zs, every cell in our body is reaping the rewards of rest: balancing our growth and stress hormones, bolstering the immune system, clearing the mind, boosting our memory and protecting our cardiovascular health.  

Pain and sleep are also closely related. Disturbed sleep causes increased sensitivity to pain the next day, and pain during the day can lead to disturbed sleep at night. Talk about a vicious cycle! 

So what can be done to ensure a good night of rejuvenating rest? Here are a list of helpers and hindrances which could be saving, or sabotaging your sleep.   

 

Sleep helpers: 

  • Exercise - Reaching the physical activity guidelines (30 minutes of exercise on 5 days per week) helps to regulate body temperature, nervous system and hormone levels to induce a good night’s sleep. It is advisable not to workout too close to bedtime, as this can have the opposite effect!

  • Regular rhythms - Having consistent sleep and wake times maximises the natural circadian cycle. Whether you are a night owl or an early bird is thought to be determined by genetics, however with enough consistency, the body can adapt and start to sleep and wake naturally.

  • Morning light - Exposure to light in the morning helps to shake off the sleep hormones, telling the body that it is time to rise and shine! Morning light also leads to better sleep the following night, as we were made to use the sunrise and sunset to guide our sleeping patterns. 
  • Temperature - We want to channel Goldilocks when it comes to sleeping and body temperature: not too cold, not too hot, but just right. Much like the grocery items that we store in a ‘cool, dark place’; we can apply this to ourselves to optimise sleep. Having a warm shower or bath before bed is a great option, it is considered to be the cooling down after the temperature rise which facilitates the best sleep conditions.  

 

Sleep hindrances: 

  • Caffeine - This may seem like an obvious one, but caffeine is a stimulant which blocks our adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) which accumulates during the day to cause drowsiness. This makes caffeine great for achieving alertness and concentration, however depending on individual factors, it can still be active in our system 7 hours after consumption (making it hard to wind down). Try to set yourself a “coffee cut-off” and see if it leads to an easier evening!
  • Alcohol - Although alcohol is a nervous system depressant, it takes many processes to remove it from our system. This means that although it may be easy to drift off after drinking, the quality and later stages of sleep become disrupted, leaving us feeling cranky and still tired the next day. Any amount of alcohol reduction is going to be a good thing for your health, so try a few alcohol free days per week and be sure to keep hydrated whilst drinking.

  • Blue light - This is the variety of light waves that come from our devices, such as phones, tablets and TV screens. Blue light suppresses melatonin (our natural sleep hormone), telling the brain that it is still time to be awake and alert. Many phones now have a blue-light reduction setting which can be automatically set for each evening, and keeping your house lighting dim can also help to send our bodies the message that it is time to sleep. 

  • Stress - Although stress is part of life, and small amounts are even healthy for us, big body stress responses cause a release of adrenaline and increases our heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. Of course this makes it difficult for us to drift off! This applies to daytime stressors too, not just the worrying thoughts that can creep in before bedtime. Wherever possible, make sure that your day has frequent breaks to rest and switch off, as this gives the body a chance to ‘flush out’ the stress hormones rather than accumulate throughout the day. [Text Wrapping Break]Relaxation can come in many forms: from deliberate mindfulness or meditation, to time in nature, moving your body, doing something creative and calming, slowly sipping on a cup of tea, getting a massage, taking a bath, or talking to a trusted friend to help clear your mind. Engaging in relaxation in small amounts, frequently, is thought to be more protective and effective than saving up all of your relaxation for a holiday or free time.  

To summarise, everyone has a sleep signature, which is entirely individual and can be shaped over time. If you find something that is a big sleep helper for you, be sure to access it regularly, and try to reduce the number of sleep hindrances in your life. Sweet dreams! 

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